Bob Koester, who ran Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart, Delmark Records for decades, has diedMaureen O’Donnellon May 12, 2021 at 8:32 pm

Robert (Bob) Koester
Robert (Bob) Koester | Tony Armour

His store drew legions of jazz and blues fans from around the world. His devotion to the music boosted the genres alive and helped make recordings accessible.

Bob Koester, longtime owner of Chicago’s legendary Jazz Record Mart and founder of the Delmark record label, died Wednesday at 88.

His store drew legions of jazz and blues fans from around the world. His devotion to the music boosted the genres alive and helped make recordings accessible.

Bruce Iglauer, founder of Chicago’s Alligator Records label, has called Mr. Koester “the spiritual godfather of a whole generation of entrepreneurs who put the music ahead of the money.

“Bob deserves a tremendous amount of credit for the popularity of blues in America today, much more credit than he’s ever been given,” Iglauer told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1993. “Without Bob, not only would Alligator not have happened but Living Blues magazine wouldn’t have happened because a bunch of us who hung out at the Record Mart started that. Probably Flying Fish” — another Chicago record label — “wouldn’t have happened because [founder] Bruce Kaplan was part of that crowd, too.”

“He was a one-of-a-kind guy,” his friend John Holden said. “He probably brought more to the Chicago music scene than any other individual in the last 50 years.”

Mr. Koester, who previously had had a stroke, was in hospice care, according to a relative who confirmed his death.

Mr. Koester ran the Jazz Record Mart for decades at various downtown locations, calling it the “World’s Largest Jazz and Blues Specialty Store.” He said high rent contributed to his decision to close in 2016, when the store was at 29 W. Illinois St.

The same year, he opened Bob’s Blues & Jazz Mart at 3419 W. Irving Park Rd., which hosted live concerts and an 87th birthday celebration for him last year.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, Mr. Koester sold records from his dorm room before dropping out of St. Louis University. He and a partner started the Blue Note record shop in that city in 1952, “and we stole the Blue Note label logo for our sign,” he once told the Sun-Times.

A year after opening that record store, he founded Delmark, which grew into a significant label that recorded stars including Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Big Joe Williams. It also reissued work by artists including Dinah Washington.

“I felt that, if I was going to operate a jazz store, I would do it from the ground floor and do it from a major market,” he said in the Sun-Times interview. “I decided, if I’m going to deal with discounting, I’d better go to Chicago. I moved here in August 1958.”

The following year, he bought Seymour’s Jazz Record Mart at 439 S. Wabash Ave. Over the years, he operated at different locations before reopening on Irving Park Road. He sold Delmark in 2018.

He knew plenty of jazz greats but also a few rock legends. Friends said Mr. Koester told them he was responsible for the name of Iggy Pop’s band, the Stooges. According to the story, Pop had been staying with him when Mr. Koester woke up one night and heard him and his musician buddies playing loud music and bouncing off the furniture in his home. As The New York Times later wrotet, he threw them out, shouting, “ ‘You guys are a bunch of stooges.’ ”

He acknowledged he could be irascible at times. He’d sometimes admonish customers to close the store’s front door so the heat wouldn’t escape.

A fan of classic Hollywood movies, he’d invite friends to his home for screenings from his extensive film collection.

“I wanted to be a movie cameraman, but I got seduced by the music,” he told the Sun-Times.

And though he was a member of the Blues Hall of Fame, he remained self-effacing.

Holden said he would explain his legacy by saying: “I recognized good talent when I heard it.”

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